LONDON: Indonesian workers picking berries on a farm supplying four popular UK supermarkets say they have been burdened with debts of up to £5,000 ($6,071) to work in Britain per season.
Pickers at the farm in Kent, south-east England, were initially given zero-hours contracts, and at least one was paid less than £300 a week after the cost of using a caravan was deducted, The Guardian reported.
The farm supplies berries to Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco.
The fees the laborers paid to secure work included flights and visas. But many said they also faced thousands of pounds in extra charges from Indonesian brokers who promised them substantial earnings. This despite it being illegal to charge workers fees for finding them jobs under UK law.
One worker described how he had staked his family home in Bali as surety on the debt and was worried he would lose it.
“Now I’m working hard only to pay back that money. I cannot sleep sometimes. I have a family who need my support to eat and meanwhile, I think about the debt,” he said.
Brexit and the war in Ukraine have created chronic labor shortages in the UK’s agricultural sector, with many desperate farms and recruitment agencies forced to source labor from outside Europe, where it can be harder to track the methods local brokers use to find workers.
The revelations highlight the prospect of fruit pickers being trapped in debt bondage which would prevent them from leaving work for fear of financial ruin. Migrant rights experts said the situation put workers at risk of what was essentially forced labor.
The Home Office and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority are examining the allegations, while the supermarkets have launched an urgent investigation.
Hundreds of Indonesian farm workers have been recruited to work in Britain this summer on seasonal worker visas, the immigration route created to tackle a shortage of farm workers after the UK left the European Union.
Pickers were sent to Clock House Farm, which supplies berries to major supermarkets.
Clock House said it was “deeply concerned” by the allegations and would “not have entered into an agreement with, or taken workers from, any entity that was involved in such activity (the charging of fees).”
It said it was working with authorities to investigate the claims.